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Which Comes First?


In preparation for an upcoming executive education session, I conducted a quick pulse survey earlier this month. I wanted to understand whether the leaders attending my training believe that there is a difference in the importance of career development to their employees based upon their current level of performance. And they do.

A Picture of PerceptionsID-10019844

The leaders polled perceive that career development is a pressing priority for their top performers. Nearly 75% indicate that it’s ‘very important’ to these exceptional employees and more than 20% rate it ‘somewhat important.’ They experience a high level of interest, attention, and motivation to grow on the part of their top-tier performers.

Q3 Which Comes First

But, what about average performers? How do leaders experience them? Very differently! The leaders polled believe that average performers are considerably more ambivalent about career development. They report that less than 20% of those toward the center of the bell curve find career development ‘very important’, with the vast majority (60%) falling into the ‘somewhat important’ range.

Q4 Which Comes First

Belief Drives Behavior

These two charts have dramatic implications for employees and leaders everywhere. You’ve likely heard of (or experienced) the Pygmalion effect whereby greater expectations lead to greater performance. It comes down to a self-fulfilling prophecy – held by the employee and/or the leader – that drives positive outcomes.  But you may not be as familiar with the Golem effect. It’s Pygmalion’s negative (and research-based) corollary whereby lower expectations lead to poorer performance.

Beliefs drive expectations and behavior. So, when leaders believe that career development is less important to an employee, they may be inclined to:

  • Focus exclusively on the work product or deliverable
  • De-emphasize growth
  • Spend less time coaching and providing feedback
  • Withhold learning
  • Miss opportunities to connect the individual’s work to the bigger organizational picture

And it makes sense, right? With limited time and energy, leaders should focus this effort on those for whom development is a top priority. Right? Maybe not.

Which Comes First?

Performance and the importance of career development just might be today’s leaders’ ‘chicken or egg’ conundrum.

  • Does performance affect interest in career development?
  • Does interest in career development affect performance?

More research is required to offer a definitive answer to these questions. But, I’d speculate (and you’ve likely experienced) that the two work synergistically to create an upward spiral for both. When employees perform better, they may see a brighter, more opportunity-filled future to fuel their career interests. And when career development is important to an employee, he or she may also place greater importance on the quality of their work.

Effective leaders won’t concern themselves with which comes first but rather how they can contribute to this upward spiral that serves the individual and the organization. While coaching for performance, they’ll also begin feeding the fires of career development interest.

This doesn’t mean promising promotions you can’t give or titles that aren’t available. It’s about infusing opportunities to grow right into the workflow by:

  • Dialoguing with others about what’s important to them and what their definitions of success are.
  • Helping others see the meaning in their work and how it contributes to the team, organization, and customers.
  • Focusing on strengths as well as areas to improve.
  • Offering opportunities to grow, develop new skills, and stretch capabilities.
  • Allowing others to take risks.
  • Guiding others to extract learning from their experiences.

When leaders engage with others like this, they leave Golem in the dust and cultivate Pygmalion. They help those around them focus on and elevate the importance of their growth. And they fuel that upward performance/development spiral that delivers very real individual and organizational results.

What about you? What do you do to grow performance and career development interest concurrently?

Image courtesy of Simon Howden at

This post originally appeared at


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